Thought experiment: combine Algebra 1 and Physical Education

(Part of the reason I started this blog is so I’d have a place to play around with ideas, no matter how non-field-tested they may be. Consider this one of my many half-baked ideas that I haven’t fully thought through.) 

One of the hallmarks of a New Tech Network school – the network of schools to which I am happily attached contractually and emotionally, and spent part of my teaching career teaching at – are teaching using a Project Based Learning approach within combined courses: World Studies and English, Biology and Literature, and so forth. The first math class I ever really enjoyed taking was my combined Physics and Calculus class my HS senior year.

While I’m not suggesting that mathematics is impossible to combine with other courses, it is often fraught with peril. When we were starting out our journey as a New Tech school, the Science teacher and I splayed out our content standards on the table to see around which we could build projects around. We had a couple ideas for projects, but that would have left over half of our content standards either not combined in a project, or combined in contrived and unnatural ways. Often many of the math standards don’t play well with others.

Moreover, in a PBL classroom, it’s easy for math standards and skills to get dwarfed by the project’s product itself. That was part of my discomfort with PBL and began experimenting with what we now call Problem-Based Learning. It’s doubly easy for math standards to get dwarfed by the lab report, the prettiness of the art exhibit.

That said, I do think students learn the content better when it’s connected to other content. I got more out of my Calculus class by chucking things off the roof and bouncing tennis balls and seeing that the acceleration and the derivative of the speed magically matched. How do we reconcile the value in connecting math content to other physical, tangible subjects while maintaining fidelity to mathematical standards and quality pedagogy?

Here’s a class I’ve never seen implemented (at least, not implemented the way it exists in my head): combined Algebra 1 and Physical Education. That’s right the nerds and the jocks, hanging out together! The more I think about it, the more I like it – again, with the full disclosure that I’ve never seen it taught, never taught it myself, and haven’t even totally thought it through. I’m not sure I’d even consider this half-baked. This is a more 1/8th baked idea.

Still, here’s what I like about it:

The tasks themselves. The content can play pretty well together. I’ve created a couple of tasks just my little old self around physical fitness, and I’m not terribly fintessy. The tasks could either be directly about a student’s physical fitness or about sports and fitness at large. This allows for long term data tracking and regression. Even standards that don’t seem to play well with physical fitness still have physical fitness-like applications (like, say, quadratics … or… quadratics).

maiwwage has started making their SportsVU data public and it’s changing the way the game is played. Slow and fast people are running at the same time and it’s on video. Teams aren’t punting anymore. There’s fitness equipment to be constructed. There are NFL plays to be scripted.

For the PBL-practicing Physical Education teacher, this may hopefully push you beyond the “make a new sport” or “teach other kids sports” projects.

Seriously, why are we letting all this precious data from PE go to waste?

The way you could structure your weeks.

Another nice side-benefit of a combined course is that they are largely double blocked, giving you a full hour and a half or so a day. Seems to me a weekly schedule could look something like this.

Monday: do something physical that gives you data (and some math practice after cool-down, now that the brain has oxygen and blood and stuff)

Tuesday: do something mathematical with that data

Wednesday: do something physical that gives you more data (and some math practice after cool-down)

Thursday: do more mathy things with that data

Friday: spend 45 minute “maxing out” (or whatever) on that data-producing physical activity. Spend 45 minutes analyzing performance

Or just go halvsies the entire week and plot the progress of the students in whatever physical activity they’re doing.

Reduction of status issues in the math classroom

This might also be fraught. I mean, the only place that creates and supports status issues than a math classroom is a physical education classroom, right? On the flip side, it might allow students who are perceived to be low-level achievers in math to finally take the lead. You might get the athletes wanting the “smart kid” on their team, in their group.

Preparing the Brain for Cognitively Demanding Tasks. Physical activity makes for great pre-work for creative mathematical problem solving or a nice interruption from cognitively demanding tasks. Physical activity releases all sorts of good chemical stuff that make you more productive, more creative, more engaged, less stressed and presumable, more capable of taking on cognitively demanding work. It’s also a really nice way to break up an otherwise plodding work day. Here’s an example of a school that is trying to keep kids’ heart rates up for the sole purpose of preparing kids’ brains for learning (hat tip: @JimPa23). Even if the math task has no relation to the PE task, I’d rather have a bunch of kids who have just been exercising than kids who have just come back from the Taco Bell Express in the lunchroom.


There are also lots of problems to address with such a mash-up. How much time would a class spend changing in and out of their gear? Would combining math and PE compound, rather than equalize status issues for some students? Do the facilitators have a similar vision for the class and what the kids should be getting out of it?

I also know that there are a ton of data in exercise to make good math tasks and physical might help prepare students’ brains for the cognitive ask that complex problems require.

What do you guys think? Is this feasible, or just one of those ideas that should stay in the “fun-to-think-about” realm?

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4 Responses to Thought experiment: combine Algebra 1 and Physical Education

  1. Beautiful. This has been a conversation at my school, particularly when it comes to charting longer-term fitness data, and making predictions about things like resting heart rate. I think it could be very interesting to see the standards juxtaposed, though I suspect there would need to be times for not-as-strong connections. Quadratics? Maybe the path of a football, or other thrown ball, but that plays into the hands of traditional team-sports oriented PE, which a lot of progressive teachers are moving away from. Linear functions, easy. Factoring? hmmmm. Might need to help a brother out, but I suspect that some putting heads together could make enough connections for a class that could open some eyes about the utility of algebra. And – maybe it could open other eyes about the allure of an active lifestyle.

    • Geoff says:

      As for quadratics, what about a Punt, Pass, and Kick challenge? Video it all and develop a model to describe the trajectory.

      But yeah there will assuredly be times where there isn’t an appropriate connection. However, I’d rather have that separation occur in a physical Ed course than a science course. And – I’ll probably get pilloried for this – it’ll be ok if you don’t cover all the intended PE standards. That is, it’s better to give short shrift to a topic in the PE half of the course than the science half of a combined course.

  2. Kristen says:

    I definitely like the idea of combining with Physical Education. I’ve actually come up with some projects that combine Algebra 1 with the Health curriculum, with stats, linear equations and exponentials. Combining Algebra 1 with Health AND Physical Education? That just spells out one heck of a 9th grade year in my book!

  3. zackbmiller says:

    Love this thought experiment. My 9th grade math teaching team is taking a step in this direction. Our school doesn’t have PE, but we did a version of Dan Meyer’s Feltron Project this year (, and for next year we’re thinking about modifying it to have kids track exclusively fitness data.

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